I still remember the moment when I first learned about apartheid in South Africa. I was 14 years old and a participant in a debate contest. The other team mentioned apartheid and I had no earthly idea what it meant. As the debate unfolded, I learned about the system in South Africa. I found it all unbelievable. Nations could act like this in 1982? Unthinkable! Not surprisingly, I lost that debate and my naivete that day. But I gained information about an injustice that would forever change my understanding of the world. From that point on, I made it a point to know about the situation in South Africa. Which is not to say that I understood it.
I can never think of Nelson Mandela without thinking about that moment when I first learned about apartheid. In his writing and speeches, the mounting injustices of apartheid were made clear. By the time I awakened on a cold morning in February 1990 to the news that Nelson Mandela was finally being released from prison, South Africa had been on my radar for years. I'd read the works and ideas of the ANC, heard the testimony of Bishop Tutu, read the literature of Nadine Gordimer and others. I'd signed petitions and sent letters demanding an end to apartheid. I knew a lot about the injustice and horror that was the system of apartheid. I understood the pernicious effects the system brought to a society.
I admire Nelson Mandela for the way that he never gave up on South Africa. In the last few days, as people have mourned his passing and celebrated his life, I have thought about how powerfully he belongs to the people of South Africa. It is in the dignity with which he lived his life and in the way he resumed his freedom and governed his country that he belongs to us all.